As soon as we heard about the 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer exposés of Montana author Greg Mortenson, we knew we were not going to enjoy this. And we were right; we are not enjoying it. Mortenson and his co-author David Oliver Relin won an Award from the Northwest Booksellers in 2007 for Three Cups of Tea, back when the subtitle was One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism . . . One School at a Time. In “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero Lost His Way,” a lengthy article in the inaugural issue of a site called Byliner, Krakauer alleges that Mortenson fabricated much of the story he tells in Three Cups and that he misuses funds donated to his Central Asia Institute—including $75,000 that Krakauer donated to the organization.
Over the weekend, we asked for responses to the accusations from Northwest booksellers, including members of the committee that gave the Award in 2007 as well as some who currently serve on the awards committee.
We heard one consistent message from almost all of the booksellers: The important issue is that Mortenson’s non-profit is building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and that many girls are receiving an education in a region where it hasn’t always been an option. The booksellers credit Mortenson with making that happen, even if his financial and management skills are problematic, which he admits. Many booksellers pointed out that Mortenson is not exactly living “high on the hog,” and that he continues to spend time and effort in Afghanistan, and that his time in the United States is spent lining up support for more trips to Central Asia and for more schools to be built there. His goals seem to remain nobel.
Several booksellers asked us not to use their names, and others seemed reluctant to point fingers, to assume that anything had been “decided” because of the revelations. “I don’t think we can make a judgment at this early point,” says Leigh Ann Giles, the general book buyer at the Western Associated Students Bookstore in Bellingham. ” . . . I think we should remain open until more information unfolds.”
Four booksellers at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island sat down Monday to talk about the issue. They (Paul Hanson, Mary Gleysteen, Jane Bowman and Victoria Irwin) wrote: “Initially, we were, of course, dismayed. That knee-jerk response of, ‘Oh no, we’ve all been duped’ kicks in and, with it, the feelings of alarm and even anger that we’ve been deceived . . . That was our primal response and the one that 60 Minutes, of course, wishes to provoke. However, that was short-lived. Reason prevails and we realize that whatever the level of fictionalization of Mortenson’s personal story, the cause is just, and the need is there. We admire and support Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute, who have done more for the causes of peace and education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than any other individuals or organizations of which we are aware.”
Claudia Wohlfeil, the satellite store manager at the University of Idaho Bookstore, Moscow, ID, echoed their sentiments. “This absolutely does not change my mind about the validity of the award we gave to Greg and David,” she wrote. “We were responding to the book as presented. At the core, it is still a book about one man doing something/anything to make the world a better place. I’d like to support that, not tear it down.”
Booksellers from the committee that awarded Mortenson and Relin in 2007 pointed out that they wanted to honor Mortenson for his work in Central Asia as much—or more—than they wanted to honor his writing.
At least one bookseller brought up the issue of editing. Susan Richmond, who owns Inklings in Yakima, WA, says that, though it’s the author’s responsibility to present the truth, it’s also the job of the book’s editors to verify the facts. “Surely the author has the main responsibility because he is asking for the trust of his reader,” she writes. “He must be meticulous about detail that can possibly upset the whole apple cart with an error, causing (sorry for another cliche) people to throw out the baby with the bathwater and dismiss his entire work as falsehood or at least suspect.”
And what’s the responsibility of the publisher in acknowledging that mistakes were made, if they were? Jamil Zaidi, the assistant manager at Elliott Bay Book Co in Seattle, WA, says that if elements of Mortenson’s story are indeed inaccurate, the publisher shouldn’t have to change anything about their marketing or promotion of the book. “Any time someone is reading a single person’s account of events, it should be understood that the author’s perspective and motives for presenting the account will certainly affect the ultimate result,” he writes. “Readers seeking something resembling the utmost truth should consult several sources to help elucidate the differences and highlight the similarities. Booksellers shouldn’t be expected to recommend books with caveats about truthfulness, but instead should enter into a dialogue with the interested reader about the issue and how to gain a more informed and holistic perspective.”